The term “pop-culture” seems to have a lot of negative connotations associated with it. Many think that “Jersey Shore,” Justin Bieber and the “Transformers” films are emblematic of pop-culture. Some think pop-culture is detrimental to society through dumbing down our children, giving bad representations of gender relations and not advocating progressive thought, among other things. But is that true?
Of course not. This is not to say there aren’t bad things that exist within the pop-culture landscape (such as “Jersey Shore,” “Transformers” and Bieber-fever), but there is also a lot of good, like “Star Wars,” “Batman” and “Arrested Development.” To be fair, what is considered “good” or “bad” is ultimately a subjective opinion (except when it comes to “Batman”), and not really the point of this article. The larger point is the benefits gained from pop-culture.
For one, there’s the idea of living vicariously in a world that understands and respects you. This is the reason people tune in to sitcoms, listen to Top 40 hits and play violent videogames. It’s an escape from real life. That has been the essence of storytelling since the beginning of time.
While we now sit down in front of our TVs (or more likely computer screens), we used to sit around a fire while shamans and chieftains told great tales of brave, adventurous heroes and nasty villains. We later created heroes like Batman and Superman — infallible beings who, no matter what, would always do the right thing and never let us down. We created TV families like the Huxtables and the Cleavers, who, while not totally dysfunction-less, were always loving and understanding of each other. And we created happy endings for the star-crossed lovers; we let the lovable loser finally get the girl of his dreams.
These stories exist because life doesn’t always work like that. Heroes in real life, like sports figures, will inevitably let us down. Families are sometimes broken beyond repair. And many times the nice guy doesn’t get the girl while the douchebag does.
So is pop-culture nothing but an elaborate fantasy we insulate ourselves with in order to avoid the truth? That’s not all true either. There are many instances where pop-culture teaches us lessons about the darker sides of life. There’s the death of Bambi’s mother, a children’s lesson about the frailty of life, or the South African version of “Sesame Street” introducing a character affected by AIDS, or “Harry Potter’s” not-so-subtle undertones of classism, racism and the importance of government transparency.
While steeped in the fantastical, these aren’t just fantasies about talking animals or finding out you’re actually a wizard rather than a hopeless nerd. These are aspects of pop-culture that teach us lessons we can take with us in real life. In a way, they serve the same function as the myths and stories of ancient times.
One thing people forget is that “pop-culture” essentially means “popular culture.” Even if you don’t watch TV or movies, don’t listen to music and don’t play videogames (and are extremely boring and probably not invited to a lot of parties), you are still embroiled in pop-culture. If you follow sports, you are embedded in the myth of its rising stars and living legends. If you follow the news, you are most likely to stick to certain commentators.
Point is, if you stay at home, staring at a blank wall 24/7, then maybe you’re not a part of pop-culture. But the moment you eat something, you’re bombarded by cereal mascots, fast food slogans, etc. It is just a part of modern life.
But pop-culture isn’t like the common cold, something bad that we just have to deal with. A more apt metaphor for pop-culture would be life itself — sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad, but ultimately it’s something everyone in the world shares together. We all know Homer’s famous catchphrase. We all know what “the Force” is. We all can tap our feet to the beat of a catchy Michael Jackson song. We all love Mario and his adorable mustache. The list goes on. In many ways, pop-culture is simply our culture — for better or for worse.
This does bring up an interesting conundrum: is this what we want our culture to be? And furthermore, do we embrace or rebel against such homogony? This, I feel, is a false dilemma. We have so much out there for us to create niche communities, to find a place where we belong. Sometimes it’s spending time with fictitious friends and families through shows and movies, but other times it’s bonding with other people over a shared love of obscure death metal and underground British TV shows. I’ve had friends who’ve shared no political or religious views with me, but loved Batman just as much as I did (well, a little less), so we bonded and became best friends because of it. That’s how powerful pop-culture can be.
In Victorian times, for example, what you read and listened to was connected to what caste you belonged; thus, if you listened to Mozart and read Voltaire, you were part of the upper-class, while everyone who listened to folk music and read dirty limericks were considered lower-class. Nowadays, I think much more highly of people who watch “Arrested Development” and “Community” than I do of people who enjoy “American Idol” or “Keeping up with the Kardashians.” This works the other way around, too — people can bond over crap as well.
So, in the end, pop-culture is not a detriment to society, and in fact in many ways is a benefit. It provides an escape, a way to learn life lessons and a way to bond and find acceptance. Ultimately, you can’t escape pop-culture, but … why would you want to?
I don’t want to live in a world where Batman doesn’t exist and neither should you.